This is a triumph of basic science with huge implications. Crispr technique breaks the mould

When I saw it working in my lab my jaw dropped

Share
Related Topics

There are occasions in science when something comes along that breaks the mould. A decade or so ago, in my field of research, it was a technique called RNA interference, a highly effective way of turning down the activity of genes, rather like the dimmer switch of a light.

In the past year, something equally amazing has come along and, in many ways, it is even better than RNA interference. This discovery, known by the acronym Crispr, can permanently alter the genome of essentially any organism with extreme precision and high efficiency.

This is a triumph of basic science, a tremendous breakthrough with huge implications for the science of molecular biology and molecular genetics. Crispr enables us to get incredibly efficient targeting of the genes that we wish to mutate and we can induce these  changes in both “alleles”, the two copies of each gene that we inherit from our mothers and fathers.

We can do that by directing the editing “scissors” – a DNA-cutting enzyme called a nuclease – to any part of the genome simply by changing the sequence of the RNA guiding molecule we attach to it.

It’s one of those things that you have to see to believe. I initially read the scientific papers on Crispr like everyone else, but when I saw it working in my lab my jaw dropped. A total novice in my lab got it to work.

There are obvious applications in medicine, but in a laboratory setting this is absolutely transformational. You can move so much more rapidly in understanding gene function and so should accelerate the pace of research. But the wider applications are tremendous. Crispr is absolutely huge. It’s incredibly powerful and it has many applications, from agriculture to potential gene therapy in humans.

But in terms of germline gene therapy on human IVF embryos, I would caution against it, certainly for any time in the near future. There are still potential “off-target” effects that could lead to unintended consequences. The safety issue has to be weighed against the medical need and here you are talking about the medical need of an unborn individual.

However, having said that, Crispr does lower the barrier to germline gene therapy tremendously. It’s much easier now to engineer a DNA molecule of an embryo.

I wouldn’t be surprised if someone at some time does suggest using Crispr on human IVF embryos because the technology is so easy to do. But I certainly think this kind of germline gene therapy should continue to be banned for the foreseeable future. There are so many  other great ways to use Crispr for the common good.

Professor Craig Mello, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, shared the 2006 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for the joint discovery of  RNA interference.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Qualified Primary Teaching Assistant

£64 - £73 per day + Competitive rates based on experience : Randstad Education...

Primary KS2 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam